The (almost) one-million-km Land Cruiser

What started out as a company car almost 40 years ago has become an extension of a family.

It was an email from Ulrico Grech-Cumbo, CEO of Habitat XR, that alerted Toyota Connect that there’s a Land Cruiser cruising around Johannesburg that is close to clocking up one million kilometres. 

“My dad (Ruggero Grech-Cumbo) and uncle’s (Aurelio) company purchased an iconic 60 Series 1HZ Land Cruiser in 1984 in Joburg, the same year that I was born,” explained Ulrico in his email. “Over the past 38 years, the car has been driven daily as much as it has been taken on family vacations and is now nearing its one-millionth-kilometre birthday. My dad taught me to drive in this car as a 14-year-old. I experienced my first road trips driving to Sodwana Bay and Cape Town in the late ’80s (a bug that bit so hard that I now regularly overland with my own modified 70 Series Land Cruiser).”

Daniela (Ulrico’s sister) also learnt to drive in the Land Cruiser on the rough roads at Hole in the Wall in the Transkei.

“We have been able to escape elephant charges in the nick of time and it has kept my dad safe working in one of the most dangerous parts of Johannesburg for decades,” continues Ulrico. “I rocked up in style to my matric dance in the Cruiser, which saved us after our limousine broke down. I have taken girls on dates in it, and it has taken me into the depths of the Kalahari (for its 700,000th-kilometre birthday).

“We have been able to escape elephant charges in the nick of time and it has kept my dad safe working in one of the most dangerous parts of Johannesburg for decades."

Ulrico Grech-Cumbo

The Land Cruiser in question was a company car bought in March 1984. Ruggero and Aurelio worked for their parents’ firm, RGC Engineering in Kew, Johannesburg. “The company did (and still does) a lot of work for the motor manufacturing industry so we bought it at a low cost from Toyota,” explains Ruggero, who has since retired from the company but still consults and is Manager of the Kew Action Group, where RGC Engineering is based. “The company bought the Land Cruiser from Lyndhurst Toyota and the Toyota Cressida was a manager’s vehicle from Toyota SA which I drove.”

A few years down the line Aurelio moved on to the 80 Series Land Cruiser and Ruggero was quick to put his hand up to take over the 60 Series. That was in 1999. Today Ruggero still uses it as his daily drive as well as for getaways to the bush, and the family can fill a book with the memories made with the iconic car.

What’s in a name? 

While the vehicle has never had a name as such, it was informally christened after a trip Ruggero and his wife Carole and the kids took to Mozambique. “We were driving in Mozambique and the roads were terrible. Many vehicles were getting stuck, but we were just cruising. We heard some locals shouting what sounded like, ‘Lando Cruise!’ [with the accent on the last letter as the Portuguese do, it sounded like Lando instead of Land]. It was such a moment and since then, whenever the kids talk about the car, they still call it Lando Cruise,” laughs Carole.

Cruising the rough roads of Mozambique in the Land Cruiser

Beating the Sani Pass 

“There was a memorable trip up Sani Pass in 2014 before the road was tarred – it was just gravel and rocks. The condition was worsened by heavy rains before we arrived so the dongas were really deep, but we had full confidence that this magnificent monster would get us up,” says Carole. “There were, however, moments where I was like, ‘Stop. I’m getting out’. Eventually I did get out and walked while Ruggero continued to drive and gave me the opportunity to take some lovely photographs. We made it up the Pass and were able to cross into Lesotho. It was a magical trip.”

A magical trip up the Sani Pass in the family's Land Cruiser

Nuts, bolts and fans  

“On the third day of a trip across the sandy trench ways of remote Mozambique, a caliper bolt snapped off, leaving us wondering if our entire vacation was ruined,” recounts Ulrico. “An irrationally optimistic 30-minute walk to the nearest tiny village in 38-degree heat resulted in us actually finding a Toyota caliper bolt in their makeshift hardware store, and we were back on the road within an hour. 

“My son went scrounging through the village and found a big drum full of bolts and believe it or not, we found two bolts that were exactly what we needed,” laughs Ruggero.  

This wasn’t the first time they managed to find spare parts in the middle of nowhere. On a trip through the Karoo, the fan perished. “We heard a noise, and the blades just flew off,” explains Ruggero. “It was probably still the original fan. Anyway, we stopped at a tiny little town where we found some guys that sold spares. It was a Friday afternoon and they were about to knock off, but said they had ‘someone down the road’ and sure enough they returned with a spare fan for a Toyota 76 series, which we were able to use. That fan is still working today.” 

Doing roadside repairs in Mozambique

Elephant encounters 

“If this car has got an affinity for anything, what do you think it would be?” Carole asks Ruggero. “Elephants,” he says immediately. 

It’s as though the vehicle attracts them, explains Carole of the many encounters they’ve had with pachyderms. “There was this notorious elephant in the Pilanesberg, named Steroid. He walked straight up to our car, stood in front of the bonnet and then came to my window – I could have touched him, he was 20cm away. I was quite anxious, but it was a situation where you just accept that if he’s going to put his tusk through the window, he will do that. It was too late to panic. There is a photograph of me with my head down. I didn’t even want to look. They are so big when they’re so close. His eyes… I just remember saying to him, ‘Buddy, we come in peace’.”  

“It happens a lot in Pilanesberg with us,” adds Ruggero. “On a recent trip, there was a family of elephants walking down the road and the matriarch came to my window and just stood there, calmly looking at us. It was almost like she was saying hello, and then she walked off. It was incredible,” says Ruggero.

Encountering wildlife on one of the family's many adventures in the Land Cruiser.

Long live the Lando Cruise 

It goes without saying that the only way a vehicle can reach such a milestone is through regular servicing and Ruggero is a stickler for servicing the car annually and has kept it in fantastic condition.  

“I religiously do the maintenance,” says Ruggero. “We’ve been using Vinfra Motors, who serviced our company and private vehicles for years. Manny, who is now the owner, can tell me anything about the vehicle, like, ‘Oh yeah, remember about 15 years ago we changed that’.  I trust him completely.” 

He has still never had to change the clutch (“It’s taking up very high up now, but it’s still going fine, not slipping or anything”), but the motor is not the original. “The car originally had a 2H motor and then my brother decided he wanted to put a turbo on it, but you can’t put a turbo on the 2H. There was a guy selling a 1HZ motor and that was ideal, so it was converted to a turbo with a 1HZ motor.” 

It certainly sounds like the Cruiser will reach it’s millionth kilometre with ease. 

“A car that can do a million kilometres becomes so much more than a car, so much more than a good and safe investment. It’s not just about distance, it’s about the stories collected and the life experiences enabled by a car that can do this. It brings meaning to transport, and it has brought so much meaning to my family,” says Ulrico. “It is a veritable extension of our family.”

Ulrico’s partner Amy has also been bitten by the travel bug and all these years later, Daniela and her husband Nic mission regularly from the Cape to join the adventures.

Family's beloved Land Cruiser on its 1-million km milestone journey

Making dreams come true

The Kruger National Park has many hidden gems begging to be explored. One such treasure is the Makuleke Contract Park, just north of the Luvuvhu River. We took the Land Cruiser Prado VX-L to explore.